Spain’s ‘transition to democracy’ as a passive revolution

By Doug Enaa GreeneMarch 10, 2018 — 
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — After decisively defeating the Second Spanish Republic in 1939, the triumphant dictatorship of Francisco Franco presided over a regime of unbridled state terror, concentration camps and murder. Resistance survived during the long years of repression, but Franco was never beaten. By the time of Franco's death in 1975, the bourgeoisie recognized that fundamental reform was needed to deal with a militant labor movement, the leftist opposition and a mounting economic crisis. To that end, the post-Franco government began a process of “liberalization.” However, the Spanish bourgeoisie would not have been able to make the transition from fascism to a constitutional monarchy without the willing collaboration of the left-wing parties who renounced any other alternative in the interests of “national reconciliation.” The much touted Spanish “transition to democracy” was an example of what Antonio Gramsci called a “passive revolution.” By passive revolution, Gramsci means that
through the legislative intervention of the state, and by means of the corporative organization-relatively far-reaching modifications are being introduced into the country's economic structure in order to accentuate the "plan of production" element; in other words, that socialization and co-operation in the sphere of production are being increased, without however touching (or at least not going beyond the regulation and control of) individual and group appropriation of profit.[1]
After Franco's death, the Spanish bourgeoisie was able to achieve a “revolution without a revolution” since they possessed the will and the capacity to carry out a strategy of “democratization.” They were also able to secure the collaboration and support of the opposition since the left lacked a revolutionary and “Jacobin” strategy of their own that could lead to a revolutionary break. Not only did the left refuse to play a revolutionary role, they allowed themselves to be co-opted and absorbed by the bourgeoisie, ultimately ensuring a successful passive revolution in Spain.

New Order

In February 1939, Franco's Nationalists were on the verge of victory over the beleaguered Second Republic.[2] Despite the fact that their cause was lost, Republican leaders were determined to resist because they knew what capitulation would mean. On February 13, Franco announced his intentions to institutionalize the persecution of the “anti-Spain” by passing the Law of Political Responsibilities that retroactively criminalized all supporters of the Second Republic. The Nationalist uprising of 1936 was more than a simple military coup; it was a counterrevolutionary crusade against the forces of “anti-Spain” who represented the Enlightenment, democracy, free masonry and communism. The Nationalists saw their crusade as a permanent struggle where no mercy or leniency was possible. The forces of the modern world represented by the Republic would remain enemies in peace as much as in war. Less than two months later on March 26, the Nationalists launched a general offensive, occupying the capital of Madrid within days. On April 1, Franco proclaimed final victory over the Second Republic. The civil war had bled Spain white. In a population of 26 million, between 200,000 to one million people died in the civil war. At least 350,000 Spaniards were now in exile in France and the Soviet Union.[3] The Spanish economy was in ruins with infrastructure wrecked, a quarter of a million buildings destroyed, 183 towns wiped out, and no gold reserves to pay off debts to its sponsors in Italy and Germany.[4] Agriculture was severely disrupted and food supplies were exhausted. The Francoist state was forced to set up rationing and as a result, corruption flourished with the emergence of a black market. For the next decade, the economy would improve very little. Although the Nationalist crusade was launched in defense of private property, the new regime instituted a policy of state control and autarky in order to make Spain self-sufficient and militarily prepared. In September 1941, the Instituto Nacional de Industria (INI, National Institute of Industry) was created to manage the system economic control. Autarky did not improve the economy or encourage growth. Working class wages were now fixed and decreased by more than 40% below 1936 levels.[5] For agricultural workers, wages were reduced by half of what they had been under the Republic (not reaching their 1931 levels until 1956). Still, the bourgeoisie and landlords saw their interests in line with the Francoist state, which returned their expropriated factories and land to them. Independent labor unions and strikes were now outlawed since they fostered class conflict that undermined the “national interest.” Instead, the Labor Charter of 1939 implemented a national-syndicalist state inspired by Falangist and Catholic ideals. According to the Labor Charter, “the national-syndicalist organization of the state shall be inspired by the principles of Unity, Totality and Hierarchy.”[6] Central to this system was a vertical syndicate with representatives from both workers and capitalists to ensure harmonious labor relations. However, the supposed harmony of classes did not exist. The syndicates now controlled wages, conditions of work and employment – always in the interests of the employers. While the Franco regime enjoyed the support of the bourgeoisie and the landowners, it also rested on three pillars: the army, the Falange and the Catholic Church. Franco viewed the army as representing the “healthy elements” of Spain. It was the army that had led the Nationalist Crusade that defeated the Republic. Now it ensured the stability and security of the new state against the forces of the “anti-Spain.” The second pillar was the Falange. The Falange, known as the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS) was the sole legal party in Spain with a peak membership of 932,000 in 1942.[7] The Falange was not ideologically homogeneous, but included different groups in its ranks: fascists, Catholic conservatives, and monarchists. While these factions were united during the Civil War, they had different visions for the new Spain. The radical Falangists wanted to push the national syndicalist “revolution” forward; the Catholics and military men envisioned a more traditional dictatorship; and the monarchists wanted to restore the deposed king to the throne. However, none of the Falangist factions were strong enough to gain dominance on their own. All looked to Franco as the leader since there was no one within their ranks who could rival him. The charismatic founder and leader of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera was executed during the Civil War. His death not only removed a potential rival but allowed Franco to cultivate a cult of personality around him as a martyr in the struggle against Marxism. Nor would Franco tolerate any autonomous power for the Falange or allow it any independent role in administering the state. After 1945, when it became politically inexpedient to identify with the defeated fascist powers, the Falange stressed their Catholic and Spanish character. Over the coming decades, the Falange, now renamed the National Movement, would be increasingly marginalized and domesticated. The third pillar of the regime was the Catholic Church, whose priests had blessed the Nationalist Armies in their war against the godless Republic. Upon victory in 1939, the Republic's separation of church and state was revoked and Catholicism was declared the state religion. The Francoist state turned over control of Spain's schools and marriages over to the Church. While there was some distance and compromise in the relationship between Franco and the Church, it was a favorable arrangement for both.[8] At the summit of power in Spain was the Caudillo - Francisco Franco. Franco was the undoubted leader of the Nationalist cause and exercised more power than the great Catholic monarchs of Spain. The Caudillo was not so much an ideological fascist as a fervent Catholic, anticommunist, and reactionary determined to make Spain great again. Just like his fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy, Franco was quite willing to utilize ruthless force against any real or potential opposition. Over the course of his decades of tyranny, Franco's rule would never seriously be challenged.

World War II

The Civil War would not have been won by Franco without the troops and weapons provided by Germany and Italy. This invaluable assistance allowed the Nationalists to outgun the Republic in practically every major battle. After 1939, Franco sought to maintain good relations with the Axis, but was reluctant to join them in World War II. As a result, Spain official stance was one of neutrality, but it barely hid its Axis sympathies. Franco allowed Germany and Italy to utilize Spanish ports, and exported war materials to the Axis. After the German conquest of France in 1940, there were long meetings between Franco and Hitler to convince him to join the war. However, Hitler would not accede to Franco's demands, so Spain remained neutral. Despite Franco's position, sections of the Falange yearned to formally join the Axis powers. Falangist enthusiasm reached a fever pitch after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Two days after the invasion, Foreign Affairs Minister Serrano Suñer delivered a speech in Madrid to a mass rally stating “Russia is guilty” and that “the extermination of Russia is required by history and the future of Europe.”[9] For the Falangists, the war against the USSR was only a logical extension of the Civil War. While Franco refused to declare war on the USSR, he did allow the formation of a group of volunteers known as the División Azul or "Blue Division" to fight on the Eastern Front. From 1941-1944, approximately 47,000 Spaniards fought in Russia, suffering casualties of 47 percent and 4,500 dead. The Blue Division allowed Franco to satisfy the desire of the hardliners in the Falange to fight against communism and to stay in the good graces of both Germany and Italy at relatively little cost. Following the Allied landings in North Africa and the Axis defeat in Stalingrad, Franco quietly moved away from open support for the Axis. Franco replaced his pro-German Foreign Minister Suñer with Francisco Gómez-Jordana Sousa, who was sympathetic to the British. The British and the US placed increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on the Spanish to switch from the German side. At war's end in 1945, Franco had managed to avoid being overthrown by the Allies, but his position remained uncertain. Spain's identification with fascism isolated Spain in the world. If Francoist Spain hoped to survive, it would have to adapt.

Vae victis

For the defeated Second Republic, their dreams of a democratic republic or socialist revolution were replaced by the nightmare of fascist terror. After the final victory of the Nationalists, 20,000 republicans were summarily executed. It was only the beginning of the repression. Over the next decade, Spain was transformed into a nation of 190 concentration camps holding between 367,000 and half a million prisoners. The conditions in the camps were deplorable and many prisoners died of malnutrition and disease. Due to the labor shortage, many prisoners performed slave labor in penal battalions in mines, construction or on latifundia. The most notorious use of slave labor by Franco was the construction of the Monumento de los Caídos (“the monument of the fallen”) by republican prisoners to commemorate the Nationalist victory in the war. To the Nationalists, the defeated were rabble who needed to be systematically exterminated. Executions were carried out after quick summary trials with no right to defense or appeal. The condemned were shot and buried in mass graves across Spain. The number of dead range from the ridiculously low figure of 23,000 to over 200,000.[10] Only with the end of World War II did repression lessen somewhat when a general pardon was issued for prisoners from the Civil War. Three years later, Franco formally ended the state of war in Spain. By then, Nationalist repression had served its purpose in annihilating opposition, and threatened to become counterproductive in the new international climate. This did not mean that Spain ceased to be a police state: a web of informers covered the country, the army remained firmly in control, and the slightest opposition brought long prison terms. Despite the terror and executions, Francoist Spain remained terrified of the forces of the “anti-Spain.” As we shall see, this was not an unfounded fear.


Republicans who were lucky enough to escape prison and execution and go into exile abroad found little respite. Just across the Pyrenees, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards languished in French internment camps. The French were not prepared for the influx of refugees and conditions in the camps were wretched with a shortage of clean drinking water, no decent food and a lack of washing facilities. The refugees were looked upon with suspicion by the French authorities as potential subversives and “reds.” At the end of 1939, upwards of 180,000 refugees returned to Spain, hoping that the victors would be merciful. This was little more than exchanging one prison for another.[11] At least 300,000 remained in exile with 50,000 to 60,000 staying in France, most of them enrolled in Companies of Foreign Workers, laboring in the mines, war industry or in agriculture. The rest of the exiles settled throughout Europe and Latin America. For exiled Spanish Republicans, like the Nationalists, World War II was seen as a continuation of the Civil War. In their case, it was a war of the oppressed against their oppressors. It was only natural for them to take up arms against the common fascist enemy. Large segments of the French Resistance were composed of Spanish exiles. For instance, the first units of the Free French to liberate Paris were the 9th Company composed of Spanish Republicans. Martha Gellhorn summed up the Spanish contribution to the French Resistance as follows:
During the German occupation of France, the Spanish Maquis engineered more than four hundred railway sabotages, destroyed fifty-eight locomotives, dynamited thirty-five railway bridges, cut one hundred and fifty telephone lines, attacked twenty factories, destroying some factories totally, and sabotaged fifteen coal mines. They took several thousand German prisoners and - most miraculous considering their arms - they captured three tanks.
In the south-west part of France where no Allied armies have ever fought, they liberated more than seventeen towns...After the desperate years of their own war, after six years of repression inside Spain and six years of horror in exile, these people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith; they have never won, and yet they have never accepted defeat. Theirs is the great faith that makes miracles and changes history.[12]
On the Eastern Front, at least 700 Spaniards served in the Red Army and an equal number fought with the Soviet partisans. Many fought on the front lines such as Rubén Ruiz Ibárruri, the son of Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, who died at the battle of Stalingrad. Spanish Republicans paid the price for their anti-fascism: the Germans used some as forced labor, while others perished in concentration and extermination camps. Their efforts were not in vain, but helped to turn of war. By 1943 and 1944, it was clear that the Axis were going to lose the war. Many Republican exiles believed that the end was also approaching for Francoism and many expected the Allies to intervene. Other groups were not willing to wait, but wanted to take the fight to Franco. By 1943-1944, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) unified different Spanish resistance groups under their command. They formed a political front and prepared to send guerrillas into Spain. The first incursions into Spain occurred in June 1944, just after the Normandy invasion, causing the Francoist authorities to move troops and police to the borders.[13] The proponents of armed struggle believed that small bands of partisans combined with a mass movement would be enough to take down Franco. In fact, resistance inside Spain had never stopped. Although the Republican Army was defeated, scattered and uncoordinated guerrilla bands had taken to the hills where they continued to harass the Guardia Civil. By 1944, the PCE, anarchists and other republican parties had managed to reconstitute themselves inside Spain, particularly in Catalonia. Now the exiles were convinced that Franco lacked support and that the populace would rally to their call to arms. After the failure of the first campaign, a more serious force of 4,000 guerrillas was sent into the Aran Valley on October 9, 1944. They planned to create a liberated zone near the French border in the hopes of provoking a general uprising and call for an Allied invasion. Other operations were launched elsewhere, such as in Navarre and Guipuzoca, with the hope of linking up with other guerrillas. The guerrillas did succeed in creating a liberated zone for ten days, but no uprising came. The Spanish Army, Guardia Civil and Moroccan troops were sent in to crush the “bandits.” The guerrillas cut off roads and engaged the Guardia Civil in combat. The Maquis were ruthlessly hunted down in battles where no quarter was given. The overwhelming military superiority of the Nationalists was enough to cause the collapse of the Maquis' offensive by October 28. This was not the end of the guerrilla war. Between 1944 and 1949, there were 5,371 guerrilla operations carried out in Spain.[14] During that period, at least 2,173 insurgents were killed and 3,400 captured while police and army deaths stayed in the low hundreds.[15] While 60,000 were arrested for armed actions in the decade following the Civil War, guerrilla resistance was only at most 8,000 people, a distinct minority of the population.[16] The regime showed no scruples about resorting to scorched earth tactics, population removal in areas suspected of supporting the Maquis, and summary executions. By 1948, the guerrilla war was in serious decline for a number of reasons. For one, there was the military advantage of the Nationalists. In 1946, 62 percent of the Spanish budget went to the army, which was composed of half a million troops, 150,000 foreign volunteers, 50,000 native troops and 40,000 foreign legionaries. Furthermore, the regime could count on the support of 112,000 Guardia Civil.[17] Secondly, the guerrillas lacked both a strategic vision and political unity, as republicans and anarchists distrusted the PCE. Thirdly, the regime's counterinsurgency operations were effectively able to isolate the guerrillas from the population. Fourthly, the onset of the Cold War meant that a communist-inspired guerrilla movement against Franco would not receive any Allied support. Finally, in October 1948, the PCE ended its strategy of support for the guerrilla movement, arguing instead for infiltrating Falangist unions and carrying on a protracted underground struggle against Franco.[18] However, guerrilla warfare continued into the early 1950s and there were some anarchist holdouts who fought until 1965. Despite the Maquis' bravery and sacrifice, Franco endured.

Francoism with a human face

In 1945, Spain remained both economically backward and internationally isolated. If Nationalist Spain was going to survive in the new international climate, Franco knew that there had to be changes, even if they were only cosmetic, to make the regime appear less arbitrary. In July 1945, radicals in the Falange were sidelined in favor of Catholic traditionalists. Already in 1942, the regime had created the Cortes (parliament), but it served as an advisory body with no real power. All ministers were appointed by Franco and served at his pleasure. In 1945, Franco issued a fundamental law that was seemingly a bill of rights. Spaniards were technically allowed to express their own opinions, but they could not attack the fundamental principles of the state. That same year, the Law on Referenda was passed, allowing for issues of national concern to be submitted to the population for a vote. However, only Franco could determined whether a referendum could be called. In 1947, the Law of Succession was the first fundamental law to be submitted to a referendum. This law proclaimed that Spain would be a “Catholic, social and representative monarchy,” and that Franco possessed the power to name the next king. It was not until 1969 that Franco established Juan Carlos de Borbón (grandson of Alfonso XIII, who was overthrown in 1931) as his official heir-apparent. All these laws made Franco's position appear constitutional and legitimate, but without him surrendering any real power. None of these changes appeared to satisfy the Allies. In December 1946, the United Nations recommended that ambassadors should be removed from Spain. In 1948, Spain was excluded from economic assistance provided by the Marshall Plan. Still, the onset of the Cold War meant that winds of fortune were blowing in Franco's direction. To the United States, Franco's anticommunism made him appear as a potential ally. Trade and relations slowly improved between the two countries. In 1953 with President Eisenhower's visit to Spain, an alliance was forged in the Pact of Madrid. The Pact of Madrid pledged the US to furnish military and economic aid to Spain in exchange for access to air and naval bases. The Pact was a godsend for Franco, allowing for the economy to finally revive and effectively ending Spanish diplomatic isolation (two years later Spain would join the UN).[19]

Change of course

As the Francoist regime moved toward rapprochement with the United States, they hesitantly moved towards abandoning their vision of economic autarky. By the early 1950s, industrial production levels finally reached pre-Civil War levels. Only in 1958 would agricultural output surpass prewar levels. From 1951-1958, GNP grew by an average of nearly 8 percent. However, growth was uneven with the economy suffering from bottlenecks, inflation, and continued isolation from many international markets that limited the scale of production. The basic system of controls and restrictions, along with the bloated bureaucracy remained in place. As opposed to economic stopgap measures, the regime needed a coherent policy to encourage capital investment and imports of technology from abroad.[20] To redress this situation, the Caudillo, over the objections of the hardliners, turned to young technocrats associated with Opus Dei to revamp the economy in 1957. After two years of preparation, new policies were implemented known as the Plan for Stabilization and Liberalization. The plan meant Spain abandoned dreams of self-sufficiency, ending inflation and providing guarantees to foreign investors in order to enter the European Common Market. These reforms overwhelmingly benefited the bourgeoisie, since wages were frozen and independent unions remained banned. Over the next decade, the economic reforms transformed Spain. Inflation was kept low and foreign investment increased by nearly 5 times from 36 million dollars in 1960 to 180 million in 1968. GNP grew by an average of 7 percent in the sixties. Spain ceased to be an agricultural country as the active population in that sector shrank to 31 percent in 1969, compared to 42 percent in 1960. During that same period, the percentage employed in industry rose to 36 percent from 32 percent. By the time of Franco's death, 40 percent of the workforce was employed in the service sector. By 1969, Spain was a center of tourism and now ranked as the 12th largest industrial power in the world.[21] While the economic reforms had brought prosperity and revitalization to Francoist Spain, they had aggravated contradictions within the regime's ruling power bloc. For the first 25 years of its rule, Francoism was able to accommodate the interests of the bourgeoisie, landowners, army, Church and the Falange. That was changing by the 1960s. Economic liberalization had brought a section of the bourgeoisie into closer contact with the European Common Market. Now they were eager for integration with the more advanced economies. As opposition from below mounted in the ’60s and ’70s, they came to realize that repression was not enough. They believed that Francoism had to expand its social base and “democratize” without losing control of the system. Other sections of the bourgeoisie, personified by Admiral Carrero Blanco, wanted to preserve Francoism in all its glory without granting any real concessions. Blanco himself wanted integration within the Common Market, but without any corresponding political liberalization. This section had dominated the state for its first decade, but the Opus Dei technocrats were now displacing them. Despite their marginalization at the heights of power, the hardliners, known as “the bunker” remained influential within the state apparatus, sections of the army, and in the Falangist unions. Dissent within Francoism intensified after the passage of the Organic Law of 1967. The Law was presented as a major reform that would deepen popular participation in the regime. However, the Organic Law merely codified existing practices, while the Cortes was still powerless and all opposition parties were banned. The basic structures of Francoism remained intact. The failure of the Organic Law meant that the supporters of Francoism grew worried about the survival of the regime as the Caudillo's health declined and opposition escalated.

Opposition: old and new

A. Working Class Movement

After the devastation of the Civil War and the repression of the 1940s, the working class was demoralized and atomized. It took years before there was a revival of labor activity. One of the first major post-war actions occurred on May Day 1947 with a general strike of 60,000 in Vizcaya. In 1951, a protest over fare increases on public transportation in Barcelona grew over into a general strike that forced the regime to bow to popular pressure. It was a taste of things to come. In the late 1950s, the labor movement revived in Catalonia, the Basque country and in Asturias. In March 1958, 15,000 workers in Asturias went on strike, spreading to Catalonia and Vizcaya in April. The strikes encouraged student and radical activity in the universities, something that would mushroom in the next decade.[22] However, these actions had their limits as evidenced by the PCE planned Day of National Reconciliation on May 5 that had little support beyond its circles. The economic reforms of the 1960s expanded not only the social weight of the working class but its militancy. In April 1962, a wildcat strike over wage increases began in Asturias. After trying to stay silent on the strikes, the government mobilized the army and declared a state of emergency. Over the coming eight weeks, the movement spread to 24 provinces in Spain, encompassing 500,000 workers. The unrest eventually died down in June with the workers winning significant concessions.[23] Not only had the workers won a show of force against Franco, but they had bypassed the Falangist unions, revealing the power of the underground Worker Commissions. The Workers' Commissions/Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) had emerged at the end of the 1950 in the industrial centers in Asturias, Basque country, Madrid and Catalonia. The Commissions were not intended to serve as trade unions, but as ad hoc factory committees with representatives chosen by the workers themselves in opposition to the Falangist unions. After the strikes of 1962, the CCOOs increasingly emerged as a permanent union federation that would really fight for workers' demands. The Falangist unions were reduced to impotence. While the PCE played no role in creating the CCOOs by the mid-1960s, they were organizing within them and won leading positions. Throughout the mid-1960s, labor militancy grew in Spain and was met with open terror, mass arrests, and torture in fascist jails. According to official statistics in 1967 there were 402 strikes with over 270,000 workers involved. The following year, there were 236 strikes, but the number of workers involved jumped to more than one million.[24] Many strikers were not from the traditional centers of working class militancy, but in areas that had never seen any including during the Civil War. There was a growing politicization of strikes as well, with solidarity strikes rising from 4 percent in the 1963-1967 period to over 45 percent from 1967 to 1971.[25] By 1968, a year of global upheaval, the Franco regime faced unprecedented opposition in both the factories and campuses. The mounting wave of strikes forced the regime to halt its liberalization policy and declared a state of siege in Spain from November 1968 and February 1969, resulting in thousands of arrests. However, this was no longer the days of defeat after the Civil War, and repression ensured a sharpening and deepening of the labor movement.

B. Communists

During the Franco dictatorship, the PCE remained the largest opposition group with cadre on the ground in Spain. Its militants had organized strikes and suffered under government repression. By 1951, the PCE launched their new strategy by putting out a call for the unity of all democratic forces to overthrow Franco. However, the PCE's call had little impact. After Khrushchev's Secret Speech in 1956, the PCE further revised its strategy, declaring: “There are growing possibilities for understanding in the struggle against dictatorship, between forces which fought on opposite sides during the Civil War.”[26] The PCE's call to “forget” the Civil War gained results as the party managed to make contacts not only with republicans, but Christian Democrats and even sections of the right. By the 1960s, PCE general secretary Santiago Carrillo was making overtures to the monarchy and “progressive” sectors in the army.[27] The PCE's trajectory led them to join with the large Communist Parties in Italy and France in pioneering “Eurocommunism” in the 1960s and 1970s, which advocated a parliamentary road to socialism and independence from the Soviet Union. For the PCE, the breach with Moscow came with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. While Moscow encouraged a few Spanish loyalists, such as Civil War General Enrique Lister, to form rival pro-Soviet parties, they never could mount a serious challenge to the PCE. Carrillo's advocacy of Eurocommunism meant that the PCE had finally given up on socialism in theory, something they had long surrendered in practice, by advocating a broad national front of anti-Franco forces to peacefully replace the regime. This strategy was further solidified in June 1974, when the PCE took the initiative in forming the Democratic Junta that “covers a wide sweep of social forces from left to right, from the working class to the dynamic sectors of capital.”[28] Their program made no call for socialism, but demanded a parliamentary democracy. As we shall later, even that limited demand would be jettisoned by the PCE. The PCE's moderation in the face of a brutal police state found dissenters within its ranks and the new antifascist opposition inside Spain. In 1958, the Frente de Liberación Popular (FLP) was formed. Its strategy was the exact of Communist timidity. In the first issue of their paper, the FLP declared: “that there is in Spain an objectively revolutionary situation of which the traditional parties are unable or unwilling to make use. Our mission is to take over their task and work without delay, in the secrecy imposed on us by Francoism, for our aim: a Socialist Revolution, that is, the violent seizure of power by the worker.”[29] Another break with the PCE occurred in 1963, when Álvarez del Vayo formed the Spanish National Liberation Front/Frente Español de Liberación Nacional (FELN) to carry on armed struggle against the Franco regime. However, both groups remained small and their activity was limited due to the ruthlessness of the Spanish police. Still, these splits revealed the potential for a new revolutionary anti-fascism that threatened to outflank the PCE from the left. In 1964, communists taking inspiration from China split off from the PCE to form the Communist Party of Spain (Marxist-Leninist)/PCE (ML). The PCE (ML) advocated a popular federated republic and a coalition of classes led by the proletariat to overthrow the monopolist bourgeoisie through a revolutionary general strike. However, the PCE (ML) remained small and isolated, suffering a major split in 1968. Three years later, the PCE (ML) and the FELN announced the formation of the Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front/Frente Revolucionario Antifascista y Patriota (FRAP) that planned a revolutionary insurgency against Francoism. By the early 1970s, FRAP was largely concentrated on the universities and focused on organizing students for self-defense. On May Day 1973, FRAP organized 15,000 for an illegal demonstration where one police officer was left dead and 300 were arrested. In early 1975, the regime unleashed a new wave of repression against FRAP and arrested 11 militants. In July and August, new anti-terrorist legislation was passed by Franco, bringing members of FRAP and the Basque national liberation group ETA before a military court and sentencing them to death. Despite international calls for clemency, five were executed on September 27 in one of the last acts of cruelty of Franco, who died less than two months later.[30] Although FRAP had hoped to fight a people's war against fascism, they were too isolated to do more than engage in Blanquist heroics.


The motto of the Francoist Spain was “Espana: Una, Grande y Libre” - Spain: One, Great and Free. After 1939, the Second Republic's liberal policies in regards to regional nationalism were replaced by the imposition of Spanish nationalism, language and culture across the peninsula. Furthermore, the centralized nature of the Francoist state meant that no forms of local autonomy were permitted. In regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country, their languages were banned, and open displays of nationalism were considered treason. While Catalan nationalism did not constitute a major force for direct opposition to Franco, this was not the case in the Basque country. From 1950-1970, industrialization and urbanization uprooted traditional ways of life while immigration from non-Basque areas caused a population increase of more than 60 percent from 1.5 to 2.4 million. A new and assertive Basque nationalism took form in 1959 with the formation of Basque Homeland and Liberty/Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) demanding freedom for the Basques through armed struggle.[31] ETA radicalized in the 1960s, adopting an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist program. Despite ETA's commitment to armed struggle, their first assassination only occurred in 1968. Over the next 5 years, they were associated with the deaths of just 18 people (11 being their own members). However, the Francoist state launched an immediate crackdown against ETA, arresting over 2000 people in 1969.[32] Although ETA was considerably weakened (and a section of it would later split off to join the Fourth International), the repression backfired. In December 1970, 16 leading ETA members were put on trial at Burgos. They were defiant and condemned the oppression of the Basque people. The trial became a cause celebre with calls for clemency from around the world. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death, but Franco bowed to pressure and commuted their sentences to life imprisonment. The Burgos trial had helped revive ETA and the regime had no strategy to deal with them save more repression against the Basques. Then on December 20, 1973, ETA launched their most speculator action - Operación Ogro. Their action targeted Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was Franco's chosen successor. Blanco was killed after a bomb blew up beneath his car and sent it flying five stories into the air, giving Blanco the nickname of “Spain's First Astronaut.” The assassination was widely applauded and gave rise to the slogan, “Up Franco! Higher than Carrero Blanco!” and was met with laughs of “one more pothole, one less asshole.” The assassination of Blanco shattered plans for the continuity of Francoism. By now the Caudillo's health was failing and the question of succession was paramount. Upon his appointment as prime minister, Blanco had purged anyone who showed traces of liberalism and replaced them with Falangist true believers. With Blanco's death, all plans for a smooth transition after his death were now replaced with uncertainty.

Death agony

After the state of emergency of 1968-1969, the Worker Commissions were heavily repressed and nearly broken. In 1972, their leadership was arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for subversion. However, the movement revived in early with a 20,000-strong miner’s strike in Asturias and a metro strike in Madrid. The Francoist state responded the only way it knew how: lock-outs, firings, police brutality and arrests. It didn't work. There were 817 strikes in 1970, more than 3 times as many as in 1968 (although fewer total workers were involved). By now, student protests were becoming a worry for the regime. The economic reforms had caused a massive expansion of universities. By 1970, the Francoist state was spending more money on schools than on the army. In 1975, there were 400,000 students in universities, nearly all of them located in major urban centers. The students came from a generation who had not experienced the defeat of the Civil War and were inspired by Marxist, democratic and other revolutionary ideas. While Franco could blame conspiracies of free masons and communists for student protests and send the army onto the campuses, the regime had lost the allegiance of the youth.[33] Despite the hopes of Franco and the bourgeoisie that the labor protests would ebb, they became larger and more bitter after 1973. The Arab-Israeli War caused oil prices to spike by 70 percent. Prices rose for electricity, transportation, and essential goods. Inflation rose by 25 percent, but wage increases were kept at 15 percent, resulting in a drop in spending power for the working class.[34] By 1974-5, strikes had reached levels found in Britain and France where unions were legal.[35] Working class resistance and the economic crisis had a profound effect on the Francoist ruling class. Carreo Blanco's successor was Carlos Arias Navarro, who made promises of liberalization and reform. However, these were hollow words from someone who had signed thousands of death warrants during the Civil War and continued to utilize repression against trade unionists and the left. By now, the ruling class was worried over the future of the regime that was losing legitimacy. For the ruling class, the question now was whether to continue repression or grant concessions without emboldening the labor movement even further. Calls for reform were no longer a fringe or opposition movement, but found supporters inside the centers of power. Now dedicated fascists were re-branding themselves as “democrats” or “socialists” while monarchists spread rumors that the Crown prince was a secret liberal. These “ex-fascists” believed that a democratic regime could offer solutions that Francoism was incapable of: reestablishing legitimacy, rationalizing production, and limiting strikes. If reform did not come from above, then the Francoist rulers feared that the mass movement would sweep them away from below. This was not an unfounded fear. In neighboring Portugal, which had far less vibrant radical and labor movements, the right-wing regime of Marcelo Caetano was overthrown in April 1974 by a leftist military coup after a decade of African colonial wars. For the next 18 months, socialist revolution was a real possibility in Portugal.[36] The Portuguese Revolution seemed to confirm the worse fears of the bunker. However, Portugal also offered an opportunity for the Spanish bourgeoisie to learn how to make an orderly transition. According to the Caudillo's nephew, Nicolas Franco: “We have so many things to learn, both good and bad; because it did not carry through evolutionary changes in time, Portugal now finds itself faced with the uncertainties of a revolution.”[37] There was still time for Spain to avoid Portugal's fate. Spain had several advantages compared to her neighbor: a stronger economy, more unity among the bourgeoisie, and a loyal army which would allow them to set the pace and limits of change. They also learned the importance of involving the left in providing legitimacy in the “transition to democracy.” In Portugal, the Socialist Party of Mario Soares, acted as guardians of democracy and moderation, which enabled them to steal support from the left and placate the bourgeoisie. A similar force opposition was needed in Spain.

The passive revolution

It was only a matter of waiting for the end of Franco to determine what came next. The Caudillo's death finally came on November 20, 1975. Two days after Franco's death, Juan Carlos was proclaimed King of Spain. The monarch's cabinet was composed of hardened fascists, but others such as the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Fraga, were in favor of gradual liberalization from above. However in the initial months after Franco's death, no substantial change was granted and tight control was maintained. The situation was growing critical. In 1976, the number of workers on strike reached 3.6 million.[38] In Vitoria, a general strike resulted in the death of three workers after clashes with the police, leading to a general strike throughout the Basque country. Other cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid saw masses of workers holding mass meetings, building barricades and fighting with the police. The government was at an impasse and unsure of how to respond. The army was prepared to use the same force that had enabled them to win the Civil War to crush the strikes, but the government knew that such a response could lead to an uncontrollable explosion. A change of course was needed. In June, Adolfo Suárez was appointed as the new prime minister. Although Suárez had faithfully served Franco, he could see which way the wind was blowing. As one of his first acts, Suárez promised elections in June 1977, amnesty for political prisoners and major reforms leading to a democratic constitution. The success of his plan hinged on a number of factors: (1) convincing the left that these reforms were authentic so they could take part; (2) placating the fears of the right that change could be managed; and (3) convincing the Francoist army that reform, not a coup d'etat, was the only realistic option. After meeting with army commanders in the autumn, Suárez gained their support for further political reform. On December 15, 1976 the Suárez government held a referendum with 94 percent of voters approving plans for a constituent assembly. However, the transitional strategy still had to win the support of the moderate opposition. To that end, Suárez reached out to Felipe Gonzalez, one of the leaders of the pre-war Socialist Party (PSOE). The PSOE and union wing had virtually abandoned underground work in the 1950s and 1960s and was dwarfed by both the PCE and the CCOO. However, Suárez hoped that the PSOE would play a similar role as their counterparts in Portugal. It turned out that the government's agenda coincided with the PSOE, who saw a constitutional regime as the best means to enhance the power of their organization and carry out major reforms. Despite their guardianship of the republican tradition, they were perfectly willing to accept a fascist-appointed king. Once the PSOE was on board with the democratic transition, they were legalized in February 1977 and started campaigning for the elections. Suárez's reforms continued apace. In 1976-1977, the secret police was dissolved and independent trade unions were legalized. In April, the Nationalist Movement was dissolved. A partial political amnesty came into being in early 1977. New electoral laws were passed in March to prepare Spain for the upcoming elections. Still, strikes continued and the largest opposition party, the PCE remained illegal. All sectors of the opposition refused to participate in elections without the legalization of the PCE. However, the army remained dedicated to the suppression of communism and adamantly opposed to the legalization of the PCE. In fact, Suárez had promised them that would never occur. Plans for a successful democratization depended on the attitude of the PCE, which held commanding positions in the labor movement and was positioned to determine its line of march. If the party pressed their advantages, they could potentially bring down the king and create a Third Republic. However, the PCE was committed to its doctrine of “national reconciliation.” In other words, revolution was off the table and the PCE was prepared to negotiate. In June 1976, the PCE leadership issued a statement stating that they recognized the need to abandon the politics of “all or nothing” and offered conditional recognition for the Crown. In setting “realistic” aims, the PCE retreated even from fighting for a bourgeois republic. In pursuit of its strategy, the PCE used its influence in the labor movement to exert pressure for legalization and a seat in the corridors of power, and not to mobilize workers to take power.[39] Despite the PCE's moderation, fascists murdered five labor activists associated with them on January 24, 1977, leading to a wave of shock and rage throughout Spain. This event could have led to the feared “Portuguese solution.” However, the PCE did not agitate for mass strikes and demonstrations, instead urging calm. The following month, Suárez met with Carrillo, who reiterated that he was willing to cooperate with the government, without any prior conditions. Suárez took a gamble and on April 9, he legalized the PCE, which grew to more than 100,000 members in a matter of weeks. The fears of the army were satisfied by the PCE's moderation. No coup came. In the June elections, Suárez's plan reaped another harvest. Suárez's centrist party, Union of the Democratic Centre/Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) won a plurality of votes: 34.4 percent. Despite having no organization, the PSOE came in second place with 29 percent. The PCE came in a distant third with 9 percent of the vote. Suárez became the first democratically elected prime minister in post-Francoist Spain. He had successfully managed to bring the entire opposition into the fold and accept the democratic transition, while maintaining the allegiance of the bourgeoisie and the army. This was no small feat. However, Suárez still needed to tackle the mounting socio-economic problems of inflation, strikes, falling profitability and unemployment. To do that, he needed the cooperation and support of the opposition. After the elections, two major events helped to solidify the new “Spanish consensus.” The first was the Moncloa Pact signed in October by the UCD, PSOE, PCE, several other political parties, employers and the trade unions. The agreement was meant to stabilize the Spanish economy by keeping inflation down, imposing limitations on wage increases, devaluing the currency to increase international competition, and curbing strikes. Since the parties of the left saw no horizon beyond capitalism, they accepted the Moncloa Pact as necessary to consolidate democracy. The results of the Moncloa Pact were summarized by Julio Rodriguez Aramberri as follows:
The Agreements achieved the objectives of putting capitalism back on its feet, as the right proposed; for the left, they brought no benefit at all. Inflation fell considerably in 1978, to a little more than 16 per cent; exports grew as a result of devaluation, the currency reserves increased, tourism expanded and the remissions from Spaniards overseas reached new levels. There were, and are, areas of concern, like the low level of private investment, and the unknown factor of the behavior of the international economy. But at the time the Moncloa Agreements served to moderate workers' demands through the mediation of their political parties and trade union organizations, and persuaded them to accept the existing levels of unemployment. In its first year, democracy yielded considerable profits to the bourgeoisie, confirming again that it was in their own terms preferable to the pre-existing situation or any return to dictatorship.
The compensations granted to the left, despite their modesty, remained unpaid. Far from putting the workers in a better position, the Agreements marked a low point in the movement and helped to create a climate of social and political apathy that still persists. From then on the liquidation of the mass movement, which was already in the air before the elections, has now become a reality.[40]
The second major event happened on October 17, when Spain's major parties passed an amnesty law. The law offered a blanket amnesty for all political crimes committed before December 1976. While the law ended up releasing thousands of political prisoners, it also ended up protecting the torturers and criminals of Franco’s regime. The amnesty reflected the new consensus of both the right and left to “let bygones be bygones” and avoid dealing with the legacy of fascism. As a result, no prosecutions have ever been brought against the perpetrators of Francoism, and justice has been denied to the millions who suffered during the dictatorship. Spain still awaits its Nuremberg Trials.


The Spanish bourgeoisie had passed their test. They had orchestrated a transition from fascism to a constitutional monarchy without being sweep away in a revolution from below. Despite the shrewdness and political skill of politicians like Suárez, they never would have accomplished this feat without the willing collaboration of the anti-Franco opposition, both socialist and communist. Only the Basques and the Catalans remained unsatisfied with the new arrangement. While some sectors of the ruling class and army still yearned for a return to Francoism, as evidenced by the 1981 coup attempt, most of the bourgeoisie was happy with the new framework. When the Socialist Party won the elections in 1982, they represented no major break with the UCD's policies, but more of the same when it came to capitalism. In the end, the left failed to pose its own alternative, and lacking that, they willingly collaborated in enacting the policies of their supposed enemies. Notes [1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 120. [2] The Spanish Civil is beyond the scope of this essay, but I discuss its background and politics here: “The POUM: Those who would?” LINKS International Journal Socialist Renewal. [3] Max Gallo, Spain Under Franco: A History (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1974), 70. [4] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 403. [5] Loren Goldner, “Ubu saved from drowning: worker insurgency and statist containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977,” Libcom. [6] Gallo 1974, 58. [7] Stanley G. Payne, The Franco Regime 1935-1975 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 238. [8] Jean Grugel and Tim Rees, Franco's Spain (London: Hodder Arnold Books, 1997), 36-7. [9] Quoted in Payne 1987, 281. [10] See Beevor 2006, 405; Grugel and Rees 1997, 26. [11] Beevor 2006, 412. [12] Quoted in “Maquis,” Spartacus Educational. [13] See Payne 1987, 345-6; Gallo 1974, 142-4; Beevor 2006, 420-423. [14] Figure quoted in William J. Pomeroy, ed., Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism (New York: International Publishers, 1968), 24. [15] Payne 1987, 376. [16] Beevor 2006, 423. [17] Gallo 1974, 162. [18] Ibid. 164 and 188. [19] Payne 1987, 417-9. [20] Ibid. 464-6. [21] Nicos Poulantzas, The Crisis of the Dictatorships: Portugal, Greece and Spain (London: New Left Books, 1976), 16-7; Payne 1987, 463-93. [22] Gallo 1974, 259. [23] Guy Debord, “The Asturian Strikes of 1962-1963,” Libcom. [24] Payne 1987, 555. [25] Paul Preston, The Triumph of Democracy in Spain (New York: Routledge Books, 1987), 11. [26] Gallo 1974, 236. [27] Ibid. 318-9. [28] Quoted in Paul Harrison and Ian H. Birchall, “Spain: The Prospects,” Marxists Internet Archive. [29] Gallo 1974, 237. [30] Robert J. Alexander, Maoism in the Developed World (Westport: Praeger, 2001), 149-51. [31] Payne 1987, 557. [32] Ibid. 558. [33] Grugel and Rees 1997, 92-3. [34] Preston 1987, 40-1. [35] Grugel and Rees 1997, 83. [36] For more on Portugal see my: “Fragmented Power: Portugal in Revolution, 1974-1975,” LINKS International Journal Socialist Renewal. [37] Quoted in Manuel Fernandez, “Spain: The Gathering Storm,” Marxists Internet Archive. ; for the Spanish reaction to the Portuguese revolution see Payne 1987, 596-598. [38] Payne 1987, 555. [39] For more on the PCE and the transition to democracy see Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London Bookmarks, 1988), 330-334. [40] Julio Rodriguez Aramberri, “The Political Transition in Spain: An Interpretation,” Socialist Register 16 (1979): 191-2.